Tela-Made Reflections, Part 3
So, here’s a big embarrassing confession… (that got your attention)… occasionally, when I hear the words ‘Mission’ or ‘Outreach’ unhelpful feelings rise within me. It’s not that I’m against sharing God’s love with people. (Heck, I am a priest, what did you expect me to say?) It’s just that I find my skepticism overwhelming my compassion. Let me explain.
Cynicism comes easily to me. I’m from a very old country. We Brits have seen it all before and we know that nothing good will come of it – whatever ‘it’ is. This is especially true when it comes to trying to help people. ‘The poor will always be with you’, says Jesus. ‘There’, we smugly reassure ourselves, ‘we have biblical justification for not trying to help.’ (This isn’t the place to tell you what Jesus really meant when he said that, but take my word for it – he’s been taken out of context.)
A few years ago, I read two books that transformed the way I see the world, and the church’s mission within it. (Sorry, I should have said ‘God’s mission’ not ‘the church’s’. We just join in with what he’s doing already.) Together these two books taught me that when it comes to joining in God’s mission, we cannot be distracted by the obvious appeal of short-term remedies. God loved the world so much that he gave his Son – in a way that did not just put a band-aid over the injuries of the world but brought deep and permanent healing. That is what his death and resurrection did. The problem with human nature (especially in democracies, where decision makers and voters tend to focus only on the next election) is that we are averse to thinking about long-term, sustainable solutions to problems, especially when these would involve short-term pain (did I hear someone say, ‘the looming social security crisis’ and ‘climate change’?)
As I read these books, I realized that so much of what the church does by way of relieving suffering is designed merely to get people through an immediate crisis, rather than helping them create sustainable lives for the long-term. Now, of course, we must meet people’s immediate needs when we can. Refusing to give a hungry person food because they’ll only need more tomorrow is, frankly, rather evil. But if all we do is try to help people make it through each new day, and never address the factors that stop them living dignified lives free of dependence, then our ‘mission’ is tragically lacking.
So, with this in mind, let me gush some more about St John’s recent medical mission in Tela, Honduras. Of course, we did some of the ‘band aid’ kind of mission. Hundreds of the prescriptions our doctors issued were for short-term supplies of drugs that would give temporary relief. NSAIDs, antiparisitics, and vitamins do the trick but run out. Yet the basic problems of unclean water, poor diet, and a standard of living that lacks basic utilities and services mean that next year we will probably issue many of the same prescriptions to many of the same patients. But hold on! There’s more! And here’s where my cynicism is dealt a lethal blow… We helped people build healthy and sustainable lifestyles too. I’ll write about this in the next couple of weeks, and as I do, I’ll introduce you to Gabby and Francisco – two people from radically different backgrounds whose lives have been changed permanently by St John’s medical mission.
But for now, let me tell you about those two books. I’ll preface this with the comforting thought that they are not written by people who are trying to be elected, and they cannot be classified as ‘Left’, ‘Right’, or ‘Center’. To be honest, I don’t know their politics, and they don’t seem too bothered by the need to tell us. I like that.
So, if you still have a few days to squeeze some 2023 beach reading into, here you go …
- Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, Enough: Why the world’s poorest starve in an age of plenty. (I’d let you borrow my copy, but it was signed by Thurow, so tough!) This is a 40,000-foot view of global hunger that broadly explains why people starve when there’s enough food for everyone. Spoiler alert … the global system of food aid is designed to breed dependency. Instead of giving the means and the expertise to grow their own food, Western countries give actual foodstuffs to developing countries. These foodstuffs are grown by European and American farmers, who are subsidized to do so by their governments. Hey presto, hungry people are fed and the agriculture industry in the West thrives – but at the cost of poorer countries remaining dependent on Western charity if they are going to eat.
- Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, When Helping Hurts: How to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor and yourself. Kind of like Thurow and Kilman, but at a micro, local level. A very good read for local churches that want to make a real difference in their neighborhoods – permanently and sustainably.
So, I’ll see you next week for part 4 of Tela-Made Reflections, featuring Francisco’s story.